Zooids New and Old

Cures for the Twilight Zone

On "Hope A Hope A," first heard on Spirit of Nuff . . . Nuff, you could tap all the fours you wanted. Familiarity bred fluency, and after a riveting drum solo that established the second-line beat, and a full-bore Threadgill alto attack, Cedras found his balance, bounding mightily on fat, resilient chords. Then the gifted Ellman broached a thoughtful lyricism with touches of Django. The guitarist is remarkably quick on his feet; he examines the rhythmic turf, thinks his phrases, and within a few bars finds a groove. Prieto also made a strong impression, feeling his way through the metrical skips and hops precisely and, at times, with a slam-bang audacity. Oud and tuba were used almost exclusively within the ensemble—a thumping, reedy, herky-jerking contraption of surprising elegance. It will be back.

If you owned a record label and had the pick of musicians, you would sign Threadgill for the innovative richness of his imagination. But you would also want the kind of funky pop-jazz band that can be counted on to pay the bills—a listener-friendly group that packs bars and clubs, gets big jukebox action, and sells a zillion records. Who would have thought in the '60s that this means you would want the Archie Shepp-Roswell Rudd Quintet, which returned last week, after a 34-year layoff, at the Jazz Standard? Opening night (a necessity for me in order to make deadline) may have been something of an open rehearsal, but never mind: Club life hasn't been so much fun since repeal. From the first selection of the evening, an expanded version of Rudd's "Keep Your Heart Right" (the first track on their 1966 Impulse classic, Shepp's Live in San Francisco, which became a true classic after the 33-minute masterwork "Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime" was added to the CD), you knew all was right with the world.

It may be tempting to note that aging avant-gardists always return to the blues, that spontaneous inventions end up seeking tonics and subdominants and bar lines and so forth, but you have only to search out Rudd's Everywhere and Shepp's Four for Trane, Live in San Francisco, and, if you can find it (I wish I could—I long ago wore out my reel-to-reel), Live at Donaueschingen (all with Rudd) to know that they were never as scary as they thought we thought they were. It's been a long time since Shepp's rueful, dark baritone told us about Rufus's snapped neck, semper Malcolm, and the Attica blues. But even then a bluesy bemusement and balladic tenderness infused his music, just as a Dixieland blowsiness always abided in Rudd's. In the intervening years, each disappeared from the front lines for long stretches. Well, whatever was ailing them has been cured. With and without plunger, Rudd was electric, a workman come to work. And Shepp, in his black fedora and double-breasted, was equally compelling tinkling an insouciant piano waltz or letting rip with his patented long and grainy tenor saxophone loop-the-loops.

Henry Threadgill, playing with a stacked deck
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Henry Threadgill, playing with a stacked deck

The accompaniment was strictly Rolls Royce: Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille shimmered and thumped, staying mostly in the background, keeping the funk palpable, then disappearing for a couple of duets—including Herbie Nichols's "Change of Season." It was good to see the fifth wheel, trombonist Grachan Moncur III (who joined with Rudd on Shepp's Mama Too Tight), but his elliptical solos were less commanding than his ability to beef up the ensemble. Rudd suggests the old man of the mountain, while Shepp with his dimpled grin suggests a keeper of secret ironies. They are wonderful together. Even "Steam," Shepp's 1976 portrait of a cousin who was killed in a street fight at 15, became a comic turn as the players mused on what a cool nickname Steam is ("His real name was Robert," Shepp said quietly). This is in no way a reactionary band; sometimes, as Edward Albee wrote around the time of Free Jazz, you have to go a long way out of the way to come back a short distance correctly. I'll leave it to you to figure out a connection between The Zoo Story and Zooid. I'm just relieved to find so much jazz hot in town.

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